The Untouchables: Super Mario Galaxy

The Untouchables: Super Mario Galaxy

This is the sixth and final article in our series looking for the flaws in some of the greatest and most discussed games of all time. You can read our previous dissections by following these links: 

Worlds apart?

When someone takes a shot at Nintendo’s mighty mascot, they seldom aim to wound. He may walk and talk like a mustachioed toddler, but don’t be fooled: Mario comes protected by Metacritic-toughened armour and the most zealous bodyguards in gaming. His ego takes nothing short of a meteor strike to bruise.

That’s what Internet celebrity Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw must have thought when firing two very similar salvos at Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel. ‘Stagnation’ was the watchword of the second, closely followed by a breathless stream of fan-baiting blows. His is not a viewpoint shared by our two volunteers here, though: Dino Patti, CEO of Limbo creator Playdead, and veteran BioShock level designer Steve Gaynor, who is now freelancing.

Patti begins: “For what it wants to do, Super Mario Galaxy is perfect. It’s just super-hardcore in doing core gameplay. You can’t do the puzzles by half: you either do them or don’t. It’s maybe not the best game in the world – it doesn’t really have a moody or intriguing story – but [Nintendo] know what they want.

“It’s kind of become a joke: how are they going to kidnap the Princess this time? But what you always want in a game is a sense of purpose, no matter what you do. Nintendo just wants to deepen this. It wants flat characters – characters without flaws. It would be really cool if they did have one instalment that actually had a twist: you find the Princess halfway through and then do something unexpected. That would be great, but it’d be worse if they tried and didn’t fulfil it.”

“As a level designer,” says Gaynor, “I felt really kind of inspired – or maybe, in a way, jealous at the time – of the core tenets of their level design, with the crazy abstract spheroid playspaces, and the arbitrary gravity. It was a really cool, interesting, original idea that supported classic platformer gameplay in a new way, but also they took full advantage of the core premise, and kept pushing the possibilities further and further. The central ideas really gave the designers a ton of freedom, and they didn’t take that for granted, which was awesome to see.”

Our pair agree that despite the presence of Nintendo’s latest invention, the Wii Remote, the game doesn’t feel as revolutionary as Super Mario 64. But that isn’t a problem. “The motion controls were more of an optional feature or a support feature,” says Gaynor. “You could use them to shoot star bits at enemies and stun them to optimise your performance, but they didn’t get in the way or feel gimmicky, which is a trap that so many Wii games fall into. It felt like the best use of the system thus far, partly because of how little it relied on the [motion] features.

“It’s interesting that a flagship Wii game didn’t really use the Wii motion functionality much. But, honestly, I think that’s for the best, and shows a lot of really good, smart restraint on the part of the designers, because they recognised that they were strictly making a platform game, and that motion didn’t have a ton of relevance to that design, so they didn’t shoehorn it in. The fact that they shipped the motion controls they did probably means it was the best implementation there could’ve been for that project, which is great, and I’m really glad they apparently weren’t under enough external pressure to just cram unnecessary gimmick motion features into the game that most likely would’ve made it worse.”

Patti echoes those sentiments: “It’s called Galaxy, and that’s a cool theme, and they got the best out of that theme. Nintendo knows the essence of gameplay, whereas the big military shooters wouldn’t know gameplay if it bit them in the ass.”

For all its successes, though, there are some flaws. Its intro – awkwardly blending tutorial and cutscene, with a glaze of unskippable text – shows that Super Mario Galaxy might have a knowing disregard for story, but it’s hardly 100 per cent game. “With a lot of Nintendo’s core properties, it seems to be more and more of a problem: how much text you have to advance through to get to the game,” says Gaynor. “There’s that kind of boring and pointless intro level, and then you’re having to go back to the hub and talk to various characters and advance through their text while tutorial mechanics are still being introduced. And then there’s the storybook stuff! The critical path story never seems to really add to the experience. So, yeah, I don’t know – I’m not sure where the desire for more story by volume in Nintendo games comes from.

“It’s possible it’s some idea of expanding to a wider, more casual audience or something like that, especially with the identity of the Wii at the time. But in my experience, both hardcore and casual players equally want to get to the core experience as quickly and painlessly as possible, which in Mario is the play.”

Patti thinks that idea of a broader Nintendo audience might explain the game’s repetitive boss battles, too. “You can get stuck in Limbo, because we’re targeting adults, but Nintendo want kids of maybe six and seven to play, all the way up to our age. These small iterations on the same boss – each one a little harder, maybe with a new trick – are a teaching method. The game’s designed to take as many gamers through it as possible.”

Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that there’s a certain degree of conflict – the hardcore vs the casuals, old vs new. Gaynor sees the symptoms in its frequent returns to mechanics better left in the games that made them famous: “Like levels that were basically just single-gravity-direction Super Mario 64 levels, or the ones where you were racing a stingray or whatever. Because something that was really good about the spheroid levels, aside from just being new and different, was that they were generally very forgiving, because gravity always pulled you back to a surface, so you couldn’t just fall off the edge and die. 

“In the more traditional platforming levels, or the race levels, you could kind of suddenly fail with this binary failstate, where you fell into the void or lost the race. You lost progress, and it could be frustrating. They also had the really hard challenge levels, which you never had to play if you didn’t want to, and that kind of put them in a different category. But the other stuff you were required to deal with to progress, which rubbed its old-schoolness in your face. So the fact that they held on to some of the older-school styles of level, maybe just thinking that the audience would demand them if they weren’t there, was probably the biggest blemish on an experience that otherwise felt very new and engaging.” 

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